Here's What Happened When I Asked an Algorithm to Help Me Find Love
by Jacqueline Raposo - Writer and host of Love Bites Radio When we started on this relationship show journey a year ago, I had no idea how much of my time would be spent actually studying relationships from a scholastic perspective. I’ve been on so many dating sites, read dozens of books penned by guests (or potential guests), analyzed countless articles, and skimmed advice from people named Polly and Prudie. But does any of this knowledge make a disappointing date or breaking things off with another guy feel any better? Hell no. Like all the Carrie Bradshaws before me, knowledge does not equate to a personal happily-ever-after. Then I stumbled upon some hard-core, data-driven help. Rashied Amini is a PhD candidate in physics at Washington University in St. Louis and a former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory systems engineer specializing in space mission architecture (meaning that he was responsible for analyzing the optimal design of lunar bases similar to what got Matt Damon through years on Mars in The Martian, as he so kindly explained to me in base terms when I got him on the phone recently). As a passion project, he took the same model that predicts lunar-based success and turned it to the age-old question: When will I find love? “I took all of that math, along with some other inspiration from other products, to the problem of romance,” he tells me. “You can be dating so many different people at different stages of your life, but there is an ideal probability you can focus on.” His resulting company, Nanaya, brings that probability to the forefront. Nanaya’s online questionnaire starts simply, asking how you identify sexually, spiritually, and ethnically. Then it delves deeper, polling what kind of political beliefs you are for or against, and how a partner exhibiting certain kinds of actions would make you feel. There are questions about with whom you spend most of your time, how long you expect you’ll stay at your current job or live in your current city, and how often and to where you travel. Overall, it covers a wide berth, taking a good fifteen minutes to complete if you speed through it. Once you pay the required $4.99 for membership, you get a report that breaks down your odds into pages and pages of graphs and scales. My report was, upon first glance, frustrating in its positivity. According to the algorithm, I am more “romantically captivating than nearly all women”, meaning that I’m sexually and holistically a passionate lover and have great potential for steamy flings (ahem, single New York gentlemen). But I also “appear better at sustaining relationships” than the majority of women, too (selfie high five!). And I have stellar odds―the highest possible result on the “romantic opportunity score”, actually―of finding a compatible partner. There are scales that show when and where I’ll most likely find love, how my odds change over time, in which states my odds are higher, and the top fields, ethnic groups, and religious communities where I’ll find compatible men. A page of results breaks down when I should ideally settle down (in two years, when I’m 37, gulp), what my personality and social networks are like, and my potential as a friend and potential friendship circle growth. It’s really fascinating stuff. When I ask Amini where to look for practical application, he sends me to one specific page: What Now? “One part [of the results show] how you currently socialize,” he points out. “And, if you’re interested in a long-term partner, how you should socialize. I think it’s important for people who are frustrated to understand that it’s not just about doing specific things, but about socializing in a way that you’re not currently socializing. You’re probably not unsatisfied just with being single―it’s about the human interaction of doing things that you believe in. If you do more of that, it should put you in a situation where you’ll naturally attract more people.” My results point to a rather obnoxious reality: I socialize mostly with colleagues. But, when I think about it, I don’t date those who I work with… ever, really. I’m open to it, but it’s not a viable track record to rely on for future mating. While I have strong friendships and see my close friends often, most of that socializing is on a one-on-one scale, not in large groups where I may meet their awesome single guy friends. To top it off, my fluctuating health issues have made me less socially ambitious overall. It ends up my best odds are actually sticking with online dating. Which I’ve waxed on about enough. But Amini points out that the user application of that information is vital: “Let’s say I’m told to go socialize and do sports,” he explains. “Okay. But which pickup game am I gonna play? Am I going to play something that’s going to attract a lot of straight men, like soccer or golf? These are just a bunch of numbers. We’re humans. So it’s about how we interpret it and apply it. While we should take the numbers seriously, it’s more about how you apply them.” Translation: Nanaya can tell me to keep online dating, but I have to figure out which site suits me the best, and then I have to do the rest of the work in finding and going out with guys I might actually like. Or I have to seriously change the way in which I socialize IRL. Amini admits that the questionnaire is not as accurate in calculating the entirety of the human dating experience as he hopes it will be in the future. As the user base grows (currently it’s around 100,000), the increased data will lead to more on point results. And, when he’s fully doctored and has more time to spend on analyzing that data, he plans to incorporate more specifics on not just where users socialize, but the potential of others in those social circles. But for now, Amini still has faith that the report can help users become better at socialization overall. “I’ve had a friend who has always struggled so hard to find someone, but he’s only ever used online dating,” he shares. “So I’ve insisted that, ignoring the romantic side of his life, if he were to play more pickup sports or do more activities like volunteering for things he believes in, not only will he have a better chance of meeting people, but he’ll be doing things that are more fulfilling, and so be at a better place for meeting people overall. I want to be able to help people be happier, because I think that helps people get into relationships on their own terms rather than just get into them where they can find them.” Amini is single, too, and when I ask him if the algorithm has helped him, he admits that it hasn’t really. He knows everything going into it and how it computes, and so he can intuit his own results. But the process of designing the algorithm made an impact: “I never studied psychology formally, but to understand all the things I needed to understand to reflect dating and socialization, reading up on psychology has given me a lot more contact. I’ve thought more about my long-term relationships, and what worked and didn’t, and why they didn’t. That helped a lot, all the reading for the algorithm.” Yeah, turning research into self-analysis is something we share. When it comes down to bits and pieces, I’ll continue to return to Nanaya. I’ll dig deeper into my results and take a harsher look at if my time spent is serving me as best it can. Maybe in a few months I’ll take the questionnaire again, and compare if my results change drastically. But I won’t consider Nanaya my new dating bible. Which is okay, because Amini doesn’t want me to. “It’s worth mentioning,” he brings up at the end of our chat, “that I was philosophically against the algorithm as a whole when it comes to being a human being. I was much more into the romance of meeting someone in person in my real life. I like to put my day job in numbers away, and live in the world.” Good luck to both of us, Mr. Martian.